The problems associated with repetitive tasks, sitting and long-term sedentary work are well known. Still, 62% of office workers remain at their desks even through lunch! Even though almost everyone recognizes the importance of taking a break every now and then, there is always something that urgently requires attention, a project deadline, meeting or other tasks that keep us at work.
The solution? Microbreaks.
The Power of a Few Seconds or Minutes
Microbreaks can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes and consist of any voluntary activity that takes you out of work mode. That can mean getting a coffee, going for a quick walk around the office, taking some time for a personal call or, yes, scrolling through your phone. The point is to distract you and interrupt your focus on work. It may initially sound counterproductive, but a few microbreaks spread out through the day can be as effective as an hour-long break. They can serve to fight fatigue and re-energize and refocus you on work tasks.
Microbreaks can help reduce workplace stress and make workers better prepared to handle other life stressors outside of work. Researchers have noted that workers experience lowered heart rates after a microbreak, suggesting they are more relaxed. There is evidence that people who indulge in microbreaks enjoy their jobs more and are more engaged in their work.
Combat Eye Strain
The role of microbreaks in reducing eye strain may not be as surprising as some of the other benefits, but it is still significant. Many companies have implemented policies and practices that encourage workers to take their eyes off their computer screens. Eye strain is a frequent workplace complaint, and the most common cause is focusing for too long on a screen or task. Instead, encourage your workers to use a 20/20/20 form of microbreak in which they stare at an object at least twenty feet away for twenty seconds every twenty minutes.
Prevent Physical Strain
The 20/20/20 rule will also help prevent other physical strains that can occur when we focus too long, including neck and back soreness and headaches. A microbreak can help avoid other repetitive strain injuries by preventing the overuse of a set of muscles. If you're typing too much, try flexing your fingers for a few seconds or minutes. Get up and take a walk around the office to use a completely different set of muscles or indulge in quick stretching or exercise routine to relieve muscle fatigue.
Focus is essential in any job, but focusing too long, particularly on one task or problem, can be counterproductive. There is a phenomenon known as Troxler Fading in which a non-moving object will suddenly disappear from our view if we stare at it too long. Experts believe a similar phenomenon occurs when we focus for too long on a task. Our minds wander, our energy decreases, and our attention is lost.
Even a few minutes away from a task can improve productivity. Microbreaks provide an interruption that helps restore focus on the task at hand. Frequent micro-breaks help increase manual assembly workers' attention span and reduce both psychological stresses and preserve performance for surgeons performing complicated surgeries.
Solve Problems More Quickly
The reason people often feel tired or distracted by a task is if they find it either boring, intolerable or difficult. Breaks will help with all of these reactions. Workers can complete a tedious task far more quickly if it's tackled with renewed energy after a microbreak. The tasks people dislike are more bearable if even a quick break is a reward. However, the real power of a microbreak is that it can help us tackle problems with fresh eyes. Suddenly the elusive piece of whatever puzzle has you stumped is right in front of you, and you have a solution.
How Employers Can Incorporate Microbreaks
It may not be enough to just train your worker on the importance of taking microbreaks throughout their day. You may have to remind them — and emphasize that it's a company-wide initiative employees should feel encouraged to participate in. You can distribute software that will do this on your behalf, or you can do something simpler and add it into meeting agendas or send out a reminder on Slack or whatever messaging app you utilize.
Employers should resist the temptation to force specific microbreaks on workers. Instead, let people choose the mental or physical break activities they find appealing. Here are a few suggestions:
- Take a walk around the block, or even around the building if outdoor activity is difficult because of weather conditions or your office location.
- Take a quick trip outside.
- Do some deep breathing or a few minutes of meditation.
- Make coffee or a snack.
- Do some quick, simple stretches.
- Water your plants.
- Watch a funny video.
- Read some funny tweets.
- Read a few pages of a book.
- Call a friend or a family member for a quick chat.
There are few rules for microbreaks, other than they should last five minutes or less and that they should occur throughout the workday. Schedule them in, use them as a reward when you complete a particularly difficult or tedious task, and impose them on yourself whenever you lose focus or interest. You'll be rewarded with a renewed focus and improved productivity.